Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was always going to be about death.
It was going to be about death long before the film’s co-star Luke Perry died prior to the film’s release.
It was going to be about death before the already-cast Burt Reynolds passed before he could film his scenes as George Spahn.
I imagine it was going to be about death even before Tarantino settled on the film’s historical backdrop of the 1969 Charlie Manson murders.
This is, after all, a Quentin Tarantino movie.
“I love that stuff – you know the killing,” talent agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) says in a scene that sums us Tarantino’s entire filmography as well as anything I’ve seen. And Tarantino’s childish bloodlust is on full display in “Once Upon a Time” too.
But Tarantino’s ninth film is about other kinds of death as well: the deaths of careers, the end of an era, and, most importantly, the death of innocence. It is also about the legacy we pass on when death finally comes.
It’s an uncommonly thoughtful film and Tarantino’s first where he seems more comfortable in the quiet moments than the over-the-top blood splatter.
As with all of Tarantino’s films, it’s a mixed bag. There are moments of staggering craft interlaced with infuriating self-indulgence. But, for perhaps the first time in a Tarantino picture, the craft won out over the self-indulgence for me. “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” is deeply problematic in places, but this ruminative, aesthetically beautiful and charmingly acted film might be the closest that Tarantino ever gets to a masterpiece.
This is normally the part of the review where I would discuss the plot, but there is frankly not a lot to work with. The film is set during 1969, and the bulk of it just follows a day in the life of some Hollywood residents: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading Western TV star; Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s stunt double; and their neighbor, rising star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
To be clear, not a lot happens. Dalton films an episode of the TV series “Lancer” and grapples with his own mortality. Booth fixes a tv antennae shirtless, drives around LA and grapples with his own mortality. Tate watches herself in a terrible Dean Martin movie and grapples with her own mortality.
The film picks up for a bit when Booth crosses the Manson family at Spahn Ranch, but it slows right back down again. In the world of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, a cult led by a serial killer is really of no more interest than hanging with your best friend and watching an episode of “FBI.”
The deliberate pace at which things move might not be for everybody – especially those with short attention spans who expect something exciting to happen every five minutes. But things are happening- characters are being developed and setting is being explored. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is more of a tone-poem than a film – a collection of isolated scenes that, when brought together, create an evocative sense of time and place. Like all good modern art, it is something of an empty void- a vessel onto which viewers can project their own interpretations and thoughts and personal histories.
The quiet reflective tone also allows us to revel in Tarantino’s art and in the performances he coaxes out of an incredible cast.
Brad Pitt is well-deserving of the “Best Supporting Actor” he received for playing Booth as he both goofs on and plays homage to his own screen image. He proves that, after 33 years in the business, he is still at the top of his game.
But Booth is just the yin to Dalton’s yang, and you can’t have one without the other. DiCaprio, above all else, seems to be having a lot of fun in this role, and that comes through in every scene. He’s rarely been funnier, but, when Tarantino requires him to do the heavy dramatic lifting, he does it with ease.
Per the norm, Tarantino stocks the film with a murderer’s row of veteran character actors- from Pacino to Kurt Russell to Bruce Dern to “Sound of Music” child star Nicholas Hammond- who pop in for a scene or two and knock them out of the park.
Robbie is a good Sharon Tate, but the most winning female performances belong to young Margaret Qualley as a member of the Manson family and Julia Butters as a precocious-beyond-belief child actor. Here’s hoping they both have long careers ahead of them.
The needle drops – per the norm for a Tarantino picture- are flawless and range from Paul Revere and the Raiders to Neil Diamond to Los Bravos. The attention to detail in recreating 1960’s LA is stunning, and there’s enough going on that you can’t catch it all in one viewing.
The first two hours and 20 minutes of the film are among the happiest I’ve spent watching a 2019 movie, which makes the ending, which is problematic on a number of levels, even more disappointing.
Consider, for example:
Level #1: Without giving too much a way, I’ll just say that the ending once again indulges in Tarantino’s classic historical revisionist tendencies. In the era of “fake news”, fake but realistically-depicted “history” like this doesn’t help matters. In fact, it seems downright irresponsible.
Level #2: “Once Upon A Time”, like “The Irishman” – another 2019 Best Picture contender from a revered director- seems to be coming to terms at times with the director’s often irresponsible behavior behind the camera – the way he uses violence and sexuality like a crutch.
In the film’s best monologue, a Manson family member even acknowledges the damage that watching the sort of violence that Tarantino glorifies can do to a young viewer.
“We all grew up watching TV, you know what I mean? And if you grew up watching TV, that means you grew up watching murder. Every show on TV that wasn’t ‘I Love Lucy’ was about murder. So my idea is we kill the people who taught us to kill…We are in fucking Hollywood, man. The people an entire generation grew up watching kill people live here. And they live in pig-shit fucking luxury.”
This is good stuff and a nice sign that Tarantino is maybe starting to grapple with his complicated legacy. But, when he incinerates said Manson family member with a flame-thrower minutes later, the whole thing feels more than a little false.
Self-awareness is not the same thing as remorse, and Tarantino sadly displays little of the latter.
Level #3: The uber-violent ending just generally feels false and not of-a-piece with the world Tarantino spent well over two hours building. It enters a heightened state of unreality that the film never recovers from. The last scene in particular is so sickeningly sweet that you have to wonder what Tarantino was thinking. It does not work at all.
But those first few hours are great enough that even the ending doesn’t completely undo their spell. And the film sticks with you in a way few others don’t – in large part because of its flaws.
This is the sort of movie that audiences will both love and hate- maybe even simultaneously- but will be talking about for years to come. And, for an aging director so focused on his legacy, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use and sexual references) is not a bad one for Tarantino to have.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.